Friday, December 4, 2009

Program Notes: Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" at Bowdoin College

Program Notes
Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, is a title that confounds many people. It is a translation of the Russian Vsenoshchnoe bdeniye. The title refers to the Eastern Orthodox service of Vespers and Matins. Vespers encompasses the first six movements of the work, and the remaining nine movements are part of the service of Matins. In a monastery these musical offerings would be interspersed with prayers, readings and litanies. The service would begin at about six in the evening and last until nine the following morning. Since the tradition of writing musical settings for the evening worship service known as Vespers exists in the West (with settings by composers such as Monteverdi and Mozart, to name a few), the name has been attached to Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece even though, technically, the term Vespers refers only to the first part of it. In addition to “Vespers,” it also has been called “Vesper Mass” and “Night Vigil.” It is clear that Rachmaninoff intended his setting of the Vigil to be sung as a concert piece and not part of a long church service. In the following observations, the shortened name Vigil is used.
Rachmaninoff composed the Vigil in approximately two weeks during January and February 1915. It is dedicated to the memory of Stepan Smolensky, the former director of the Court Chapel Choir and a recognized authority on ancient Russian folk music and chant. Its premier performance was at a fund-raising concert on March 10, 1915 by the Synodal Choir conducted by Nikolai Danilin. It is astonishing not only that Rachmaninoff could have composed the work in such a short time but that the Choir could have learned it in less than a month.
World War I was causing great distress at the time. The Russian losses to the German forces were becoming increasingly serious. Rachmaninoff had reported for a pre-induction physical but was not taken into the armed forces. Instead, he was encouraged to go all around the country playing benefit concerts to raise funds for war relief. During the summer and fall of 1914 he had managed to write only one song. After the Vigil was finished, he composed nothing else for eighteen months. Music historian Glenn Watkins wrote in Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War, “The spiritual beauty of the (Vigil) ... invites interpretation as an oblique response to the sacrifices of the war years.” [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, page 302.]
No correspondence survives from the time of the Vigil’s composition but Rachmaninoff later told his biographer that he had conducted a performance of his 1910 Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in St. Petersburg in February 1914 and that he had concluded that there was much of it that was unsatisfactory. When he completed the Vigil he took it to his old teacher Taneyev, who had been a stern critic of his previous compositions. Taneyev gave the Vigil unqualified praise.
Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy had used only the composer’s own musical material and was criticized for its “spirit of modernism.” In the Vigil, Rachmaninoff used traditional ancient chants as the basis for nine of the themes in the work. Originally these melodies are believed to have come to Russia from Byzantium when Russia was converted to Christianity in the ninth century. But the tunes had assumed a distinctly Russian folk music identity and were passed on by oral tradition and only written down much later, not in Western notation but by a series of signs (‘znameni’ in Russian). This gave rise to the term ‘znamenny chant,’ in which the melody was noted in small symbols above the words.
Historian Orlando Figes makes an important observation concerning the connection between znamenny chant and folk music. “The polyphonic harmonies of folk song were assimilated to the znamenny plainchants ... which gave them their distinctive Russian sound and feel. As in Russian folk song, too, there was a constant repetition of the melody, which over several hours (the Orthodox service can be interminably long) could have the effect of inducing a trance-like state of religious ecstasy.... Churches famous for their deacons and their choirs drew large congregations – Russians being drawn to the spiritual impact of liturgical music, above all.” [Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, New York: Picador Press, 2002, page 298.]
In the seventeenth century znamenny chant began to be replaced by simpler melodies such as Greek and Kievan chants, and by Western importations. Western notation was not employed in church music until the eighteenth century, when foreign composers, particularly from Italy, were brought to Russia to westernize its music, along with the other arts.
In 1772 the old chants were published in Western notation for the first time by the Russian Holy Synod and rescued from oblivion. By the end of the nineteenth century Russian composers had begun to take a great interest in these ancient melodies and to use them in their compositions. Smolensky was one of the experts in this field, and Rachmaninoff took his courses when he was a student at Moscow Conservatory. In setting the Vigil, Rachmaninoff drew from the old music he had studied with Smolensky but also wrote some movements in imitation of their style. These he dubbed “conscious counterfeits of the ritual” in a letter to Joseph Yasser. The letter reads in part:
“You are correct in saying that Russian folk song and Orthodox Church chants have influenced the creative work of Russian composers.... I would only add – ‘some of them!’ As to whether this influence be ‘unconscious’ ... or ‘conscious’ it would be difficult to say. Especially about the unconscious! This is obscure! But the latter case, which could more simply be called ‘counterfeit style,’ is obvious. And the composers themselves, if they should care to, can show you instances of this. I too can point to one. In accordance with the rules of the Orthodox Church, certain chants of the Vigil must be written on themes from the ritual.... Others, however, can be original. In my Vigil all that applied to this second instance was a conscious counterfeit of the ritual.” [Quoted in Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, New York: New York University Press, 1956. Page 313.]
To help sort out the origins of the melodies in the fifteen movements of the Vigil, the following table presents them in the order of performance.
Movement Text Chant origin
1. Call to worship
O come, let us worship
“Conscious counterfeit”
2. Verses from Psalm 104
(Orthodox Psalm 103)
Praise the Lord, O my soul
3. Verses from Psalms 1-3
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked
“Conscious counterfeit”
4. Trisagion (Vesper hymn)
O gracious light
5. Nunc dimittis
Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace
6. Ave Maria
Hail, Mother of God
“Conscious counterfeit”
7. The Lesser Doxology
Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace...
8. Verses from Psalms 135 and 136 (Orthodox 134 and 135)
Praise ye the name of the Lord
9. Easter Hymn
Blessed art Thou, O Lord: teach me Thy statutes
10. Veneration of the Cross
We have seen the Resurrection of Christ
“Conscious counterfeit”
11. Magnificat
My soul doth magnify the Lord
“Conscious counterfeit”
12. The Greater Doxology
Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace...
“Conscious counterfeit”
13. Easter Hymn
Today salvation has come
14. Easter Hymn
Rising from the tomb
15. Hymn to the Mother of God
To thee, O Virgin
Rachmaninoff’s setting of the Vigil is a highly successful melding of these chant materials. A feature of Russian Orthodox chant is a great deal of repetition. In the hands of a less gifted composer these chants could be monotonous, but Rachmaninoff saw in them an opportunity for infinitely varied repetition of the brief diatonic melody with subtle alterations to outline, rhythm, harmony and vocal arranging. Rhythm is dictated most of the time by the stressed and unstressed syllables of the text. Eight of the movements were written with no time signature at all. Harmonically and contrapuntally, Rachmaninoff is more adventurous than he was in the Liturgy, although the restraints imposed by church performance practice kept him from the kinds of compositional techniques one finds in his instrumental works or his songs. Despite all this, his choral writing is unforgettable in its demands. He wrote the work for a particular choir (The Synodal Choir) and he took full advantage of its sonorous bass section and its ability to sing low B flats at full volume. Texts, even though they are sacred, are treated as if they were the libretto for a small opera. Solos are like brief character roles.
The opening movement serves as a joyful call to worship. Its theme, one of Rachmaninoff’s ‘conscious counterfeits,’ is repeated four times. Its quiet conclusion is somewhat surprising but establishes a regular pattern throughout the work of tranquil endings regardless of how loud the earlier portions of the movement may have been.
In our performances the alto solo in the second movement is performed by a small group of women rather than a single voice. The chant itself is unremarkable but the accompaniment provided for it introduces Rachmaninoff’s frequent use of humming by the chorus, creating a quasi-instrumental effect. Another choral accompaniment technique heard here and continued throughout the work is an alternative to humming in which the final vowel of a word is continued for many measures. These “vowel extensions” are used even more frequently than humming and permit a louder background when needed. The descending scale for the basses at the end of the movement reaches a low C, only the first of several passages to descend to the bottom of the male vocal range.
The alleluia refrains in the third movement create increasing excitement as they appear between verses of the hymn. Each time they are heard in a different key and with varied dynamics but always the same rhythm. The folk-like character of the refrains renders them quickly memorized by singers and audience alike.
The Kievan chant that forms the basis of the fourth movement, the Vesper Hymn known in Greek as Phos hilaron, is again very simple in construction. The tenors introduce it in its ancient form and then the other voices join in. The brief tenor solo emphasizes the most important words of the hymn, “We praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: God!”
One of the most famous movements in the Vigil is the fifth, the Nunc dimittis or Song of Simeon. Rachmaninoff later stated that this was his favorite movement and that he wanted it sung at his own funeral. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented this wish from being fulfilled at the time of his death. This is the only wholly solo number in the entire work, sung by a tenor over rocking chords. After the central climax the basses begin a gentle descent down to a subterranean B flat, iconic writing that symbolizes the descent of Simeon down into the grave. This passage gave rise to an oft-repeated anecdote: When Rachmaninoff played the score for the conductor Nikolai Danilin, Danilin said to him, “Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas.” Rachmaninoff recalled later, “Nevertheless he did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen, and I well know what demands I could make upon Russian basses!” [Quoted in Bertensson and Leyda, op. cit., page 191.]
The sixth movement, an Ave Maria, is often sung as a separate anthem, due undoubtedly to the fact that the basses are not required to sing in their extreme lower range and that Rachmaninoff set the piece with traditional Western time signatures. This is one of the “conscious counterfeits,” but the chant-like theme, particularly when sung by the altos in thirds in the middle of the movement, sounds so much like the real thing that it would be hard to distinguish it from the original melodies employed in other movements.
The Matins portion of the Vigil (starting with the seventh movement) opens with a radiant setting of the opening text of the Gloria in excelsis, combining restraint of expression with a rich choral tone like that of many bells ringing. As usual, the movement ends quietly. A full setting of the Gloria (with the same chant) text comes later, in the twelfth movement, entitled “The Greater Doxology.”
The eighth movement presents psalm texts interspersed with alleluias. Sopranos in three parts and tenors in two parts sing in a high register as the altos and basses sing the znamenny chant with great gusto in unison. The setting is memorable for its rhythmic vigor, and at the climaxes the intensity of tone required pushes the singers’ vocal power to the maximum.
The ninth movement is the centerpiece of the work. It retells the Easter story in a dramatic presentation with innumerable rhythmic and harmonic variations. A particular feature of the movement is the way in which different paragraphs of the text are connected to the repeated refrain with humming. The refrain, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes,” appears always in the same key in this movement. Rachmaninoff later used the znamenny chant in this movement as one of the principal themes in his Symphonic Dances.
The next three movements are Rachmaninoff’s own melodies. Rachmaninoff fans will probably notice that the theme of movement 10 closely resembles the opening theme of his Third Piano Concerto and is in the same key (D minor). This robust melody is sung in octaves, with the performance marking “Strongly. Resolutely. Accenting every note.”
Number eleven, a setting of the Magnificat (Song of Mary), weaves dramatic exclamations into a fabric of quiet meditation. The low basses intone the chant melody but do not sing the refrain, “More honorable than the Cherubim …,” a simple-sounding melody that illustrates Rachmaninoff’s remarkable gift for using the complex rhythms of the text to create memorable choral writing. In spite of this, the movement was composed without time signatures.
The twelfth movement is a more elaborate setting of the Gloria in excelsis Deo and shares the same opening chant as the seventh movement. It concludes with the Trisagion (“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us”) in a jubilant, fast-paced setting that is less rhythmically intricate than the setting of the same text in his Liturgy, where 5/8 and 6/8 measures alternate.
Movements 13 and 14 are both Easter hymns and share the same chant. Number 13 is the shortest movement in the entire work (only 17 measures) and serves as an introduction to the fourteenth movement. In this movement we hear the chant melody sung in quarter notes in the tenor part while the sopranos sing the same line in augmentation (half notes) at the beginning of the movement.
The last movement is derived from the Greek text ‘Ti Ipermaho,’ a lively hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary. It offers an animated and radiant conclusion to the Vigil.
The premier performance of the Vigil was on March 10, 1915, and was an immediate success with the public and critics alike. Five additional performances were immediately arranged. According to Rachmaninoff’s biographer, Sergei Bertensson, the first performance gave the composer “an hour of the most complete satisfaction.” [Bertensson & Leyda, op. cit., page 191.]
But history tragically intervened before the work could receive the attention it deserved. The war dragged on with worsening consequences and the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 prevented further performances in Russia except one in Kazan in 1922 and two in Moscow in 1926 in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory. The work did not fare well outside Russia either. An English version supposedly authorized by the composer was published by H.W. Gray in New York in 1920, entitled Songs of the Church: Fifteen Anthems for Mixed Chorus, with a translated text by Winfred Douglas. This edition took enormous liberties with the original notes and rhythms to accommodate English prosody. The worst example can be found in the final movement, a hymn to the Virgin Mary, where Douglas’s translation offered “Heav’n elected chieftain, triumphant victor in our glorious war …” For nearly fifty years the work remained in obscurity, though one Soviet musicologist credited Rachmaninoff’s choral writing with influencing the style of later composers such as Georgi Sviridov and Rodion Shchedrin.
In 1965 the Vigil staged a comeback when the State Academic Choir of Moscow under the direction of Alexander Sveshnikov made a definitive recording of the work on the Melodiya label. Since that seminal recording, many others have appeared, including two excellent American performances by the Robert Shaw Chorale and the Dale Warland Singers. Recent recordings by Russian choirs such as the Choir of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi and the Voronezh Chamber Choir have set new standards of excellence and imagination in the performance of this magnificent piece.
Anthony Antolini

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